Is Punishment Still the Name of the Game?
In the sphere of public education, if we are not careful the disciplinary measures we apply to students can be more out of a mindset of punishment, as opposed to a form of discipline that aims to help students engage in a holistic process to learn from their mistakes, misbehaviors, or even blatantly flagrant actions. Managing discipline is hard because through the process of applying, determining, or giving out a consequence, it is often triangulated with pressure from all sides for a perfect outcome. When at the admin level the decision must be acceptable for the teacher, student, family, and maybe even district office folks. When the discipline is at the classroom level the outcome must be acceptable to the student, family, fellow-teachers, and school admin. Through it all, the world of discipline requires a certain level of finesse, tough skin, deep cultural understanding and responsiveness, love, and patience.
Inherently within the term discipline is embedded an opportunity for teaching and learning. Thus true or restorative discipline brings with it a teachable moment or season. Within our nation the (Tk-12) public education system (in terms of discipline) has been established on principles of punishment. In some settings this paradigm might be more subtle than others, but it is a reality nonetheless. Additionally, in districts and educational settings where we find more students of color, we find more and harsher forms of punishment, disguised as school discipline. This unfortunately is a predictable element within our educational system.
I remember the first day of my sixth grade band class, some 30-plus years ago. Hanging high up in the classroom was a paddle and a bunch of papers where students of the past had written lines as a form of discipline. I had heard about that paddle through neighborhood lore, but by the time I enrolled in the school, its use had been banned. I had just barely escaped the season of the paddle. However, the teacher made continued reference to the group of students of the past that misbehaved, had to write lines, and receive the wrath of the paddle. Even though the paddle was not being used physically, the mindset of punishment, as opposed to healthy and restorative forms of discipline, was still in place. Today such overt punishment is illegal, but in covert ways punishment is still the name of the game. Let’s just face it, there are times when students misbehave to such a degree that the adult takes the actions personally. Sometimes when that occurs, we then want a type of subtle revenge in the name of discipline, but this time we actually want it to hurt.
So in reality there are times when some simply feel the consequence applied to the classroom referral simply was not severe, harsh, or punitive enough. I remember working as a High School Assistant Principal and assigning a five day suspension to a student for a knock-down, drag-out fight (it was his first fight). I brought the student into my office and discussed the entire situation. The student admitted his wrong and explained the reality of the fight. I called the mother of the student, informed her of the incident, allowed her to talk to her son, and I informed her that the suspension form was in his back pocket. After the conclusion of the call, I wrote the pass for the student to go home and begin his 5 days suspension. As the student left my office he had a smile on his face, we gave each other a high-five and he walked out of my office, down the hall, and home. Well, a few minutes after that I heard a ripple in my office that I was too soft on the student. The student smiled because he knew at least through our interaction he was heard, respected, and treated fairly.
Wait! Because the student accepted his suspension and responsibility for his actions and left my office with our relationship still in place, the 5-day suspension was not punitive enough. I guess if the student left my office crying, kicked my door, and launched a few profanities at me, then I would have been applauded for a good stern job (a good job at making the student hurt). Perhaps if I would have illegally suspended him for six days, instead of the maximum five, or recommended him for expulsion, all would have been well. This is just one of scores of personal examples, but it illustrates the substratum and roots of the pervasive quest for punishment that flows throughout our American schooling system.
Another detection of this subtle nuance is found in the response to suspension/expulsion decline and conceptions such as Restorative Justice. On a very basic and superficial level, antithetical attitudes to Restorative Justice view RJ as soft and a situation that allows students to evade discipline. Also, as suspensions and expulsions decline, some may believe that schools are no longer as safe or administrators are refusing to suspend to make discipline numbers and statistics appear impressive. It is amazing how common it is to hear that position, while so very uncommon to hear outrage about suspension/expulsion racial disproportionality. These mindsets are often apparent because our system is based on punishment, and covertly punishment is still the name of the game.
It has already been declared that out-of-school suspensions do basically nothing to change or transform negative behavior. Yet, this fact alone is not enough to switch beliefs out of a punishment or suspension-first mindset. I should state here again, where we find more students of color we find more and harsher forms of punitive discipline and even SPED referrals. So there is also a subtle notion that children of color are more dangerous than children who are not of color, with African American students being depicted as the most dangerous. It does not matter if you agree with the premise or not, the discipline data across the nation continually confirms and sings this unfortunate song.
Punishment and harmful forms of discipline have grown at such alarming and disproportional rates, California Education Code has changed over the years. It is almost a statement to educators that sounds like this: “You educators are not moving urgently enough to address the harmful effects of punitive student discipline (and racial disproportionality), so we will assist you by restricting your ability to suspend students in certain categories.”
AB 1729 (EC 48900.5) and AB 420 (EC 48900(k)(1)(2)), have both resulted in suspension limitations. Approximately three years ago when AB 1729 went into effect, it limited students from being suspended for a first offense for any incident codified under EC 48900 f-r. So it has now been law for a few years that there are certain offenses in which a student cannot be legally suspended for a first offense, unless his/her presence causes a continuing danger on a school campus.
AB 420 provided amendments to EC 48900 (k), willful defiance, and also comes with suspension limitations. In terms of the language, 48900 (k)(1) talks about students who “Disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, school officials, or other school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties.” The new addition is EC 48900 (k)(2), which indicates any student in grades k-3 cannot be suspended under this section and it does not constitute grounds for a pupil enrolled in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, to be recommended for expulsion. So in addition to any programs, strategies, and methodologies schools and districts are implementing to be more culturally responsive with discipline, California law now limits how suspensions can be administered.
Another critical switch to California Education code is found regarding the concept of imitation firearms. It is often customary that students are immediately suspended and recommended for expulsion for the on-campus possession of a BB gun or airsoft pistol. There have been occasions where the orange tip has been removed. It is totally unsafe, unwise, and against Board Policy and education code for a student to be in possession of such a dangerous object, yet it is also important to understand the education code frame.
The potential suspension code for the possession of a BB gun or airsoft pistol is EC 48900 (m) and it defines an imitation firearm as “a replica of a firearm that is so substantially similar in physical properties to an existing firearm as to lead a reasonable person to conclude that the replica is a firearm.” However, notice the supporting expulsion language and elements I have highlighted of EC 48915 (c)(1): “The act of possessing an imitation firearm, as defined in subdivision (m) of Section 48900, is not an offense for which suspension or expulsion is mandatory pursuant to this subdivision and subdivision (d), but it is an offense for which suspension, or expulsion pursuant to subdivision (e), may be imposed. Again, the purpose of pointing out such sections is so all educators are aware of the nuanced language and the elements that could be perceived as automatic suspensions and expulsions, but through a clear look at educational law, things are not as resolute as one might think.
The equity driven push is for all educators to work from a restorative mindset and not seek to unleash punishment or punitive measures, but to engender discipline that restores. Building community, sustaining effective communication, and responding to discipline always has challenges, but once all the emotion settles, the true intent is to do what is restorative, just, fair, and right for all parties involved. That is the essence of discipline as opposed to punishment. True discipline seeks to provide an opportunity to teach, grow, and learn through the experience, while punishment simply seeks to hurt. Additionally, under a restorative climate there is opportunity for personal and community harm to be reconciled and repaired.
In conclusion, based upon EC 48900.5, Restorative Justice is one suggested alternative to suspension, but it is imperative that we have a clear understanding of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Just because a student is not suspended and sent home for an infraction, it does not mean Restorative Justice methods were used. We must be careful in over-labeling disciplinary practices restorative, when in actuality it may have just been discipline, or in some cases just punishment. In terms of discipline referrals and responding restoratively to discipline, it is absolutely imperative that every stakeholder be kept in the loop of restorative methods, minimizing the mindset that Restorative Justice is a quick ticket out of trouble and a refusal to hold students accountable for their actions. In reality that is the exact opposite of Restorative Practices, in community and mindset, and Restorative Justice in response to discipline.
For the welfare of the students and families we serve, whether overtly or covertly, punishment cannot be the name of the game.
Dr. Ammar Saheli